Remembering Tyagaraja, the guardian saint of Carnatic music, on his 250th birth anniversary

Musicians and music lovers from all over the world are gathered in Thiruvayaru to pay tribute to the singer saint.
Remembering Tyagaraja, the guardian saint of Carnatic music, on his 250th birth anniversary
Remembering Tyagaraja, the guardian saint of Carnatic music, on his 250th birth anniversary
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This is the 250th birth year of the poet and composer deified as a saint, Tyagaraja. He is one of the principal composers of the Carnatic trinity, and for artistes and practitioners of the most complicated genre of music, this is a historic occasion.

For those of you who don’t have a taste for Carnatic music, this whole phenomenon may seem a bit odd and funny. In no other genre of music in the world are composers so deified. But Carnatic music hails from a different tradition and a different cultural context. It grew out of temple cultures and reached royal courts. A large part of its content was determined by the fact that it emerged from these two contexts. Hence the endless praise of mythological gods and rulers of kingdoms and various princely states.

For those interested in understanding the finer nuances and the aesthetics of Carnatic music, a large part of the content is an experience of the devotional sentiment or Bhakti, or the sensual sentiment or Sringara.

But we will come to that later. Who was Tyagaraja and why is he so celebrated? It is impossible to condense everything about him in one article. (There have been many biographies on him and most of them are available for those interested to read more.)

Tyagaraja was born on 14th May 1767 in the village of Thiruvayaru in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. His parents, Kakarla Ramabrahmam and Sitamma, were Telugu Mulakanadu Smartha Brahmins from the Prakasam district of Andhra, who migrated to the Tamil regions a generation earlier. He was named Tyagabrahmam at birth, in honour of lord Shiva who is worshipped as Tyagaraja in the temple of Thiruvarur. He was the third son of his parents.

Very little is known about the early life of Tyagaraja. What we do know is that he began learning music at a very early age. His maternal grandfather was a Veena player. Tyagaraja took music training from Sonti Venkataramayya. But that didn’t stop him from taking musical inspirations from various earlier poets.

He was an ardent devotee of lord Rama. In his praise and honour he wrote numerous musical operas, and about twenty four thousand songs, a claim that has been speculated among music historians. Out of those songs, only about seven hundred survive. As per the oral tradition, all these songs are passed on from a teacher to a student and are sung till date. Tyagaraja himself had several illustrious students who took his musical legacy ahead. Among the more famous ones are Walajapet Venkataramana Bhagavatar.  

Tyagaraja lived a long and austere life, like a saint, and passed away on January 6, 1847. But keeping with the local tradition, this date is not important. According to the local Tamil calendar, he passed away on Pushya Bahula Panchami. Every year this falls on a different day of the Gregorian calendar.

Tyagaraja’s songs and compositions are full of devotion to his god Rama. It is in this context his music and life must be studied. There are hundreds of stories of various miracles that happened in his lifetime that inspired him to write those songs. It is a matter of faith. Keeping with the Carnatic tradition, an artiste and a listener experience the finer side of music only when they align themselves with this quality of Bhakti. And it is this quality of devotion that many were drawn to Tyagaraja and his music.

Among many of those was Bangalore Nagaratnamma, a famous musician who hailed from the traditional Devadasi community who donated all her life savings to resurrect the final resting place of Tyagaraja and build a shrine over it. The story of Nagaratnamma itself is fascinating and moving. It has been documented in the form of a fantastic biography written by the seasoned cultural historian Sriram Venkatakrishnan and is available for everyone to read.

Nagaratnamma’s statue can be seen opposite the Samadhi in Thiruvayaru. Over the decades, it has been modified with the patronage of generous donors and music lovers. Today it is a pilgrimage site for scores of Carnatic music lovers. While no one knows how Tyagaraja exactly looked, we do have several artistic impressions of what he might have looked like. The most celebrated one is the painting by the famous musician and scholar S Rajam that you can find in every Carnatic musician’s home across the world.

For the last many decades, thousands of Carnatic music lovers, artistes, Gurus, audiences throng to this Samadhi to commemorate Pushya Bahula Panchami. The celebrations begin five days earlier with back-to-back concerts that are a form of musical offering. Everyone comes together in a spirit of musical bonhomie and remembers the legacy of Tyagaraja with great reverence. On the final day morning, the idol of Tyagaraja enshrined in the Samadhi is offered prayers, like a god would in any temple in south India, with great rituals.

After that the group singing of five of his famous compositions takes place. These five compositions are grouped under the term ‘Pancharatna Kritis’ or five gems.

The Pancharatna Kritis are sung together as an offering from musicians and music lovers to the spirit of Tyagaraja. Over the decades, every great Carnatic musician worth his salt has participated in this event. They consider it a great honour and a prayer to take part in these celebrations and remember Tyagaraja through his songs.

Listen to the first of the five gems, ‘Jagadananda Karaka’ set to Nattai Ragam.

This is a vintage video from one of the older Aradhana celebrations. If you look properly, you can find some of the biggest stalwarts of that era like the famous violinist T N Krishnan and M S Gopalakrishnan, vocalists like Sudha Raghunathan and Aruna Sairam.

The life and music of Tyagaraja has been a subject of few films. The best one remains the film ‘Thyagayya’ made in 1946 by Chittor V Nagaiah. Shot at the original locations where Tyagaraja lived and moved around, this film has a lot of history in it. The film was a huge success all over the south. The film's greatest contribution however was that it prompted the formation of several Thyagaraja Sabhas. Nagaiah generously donated to start the first music school named after Tyagaraja in Thiruvayaru besides founding Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha in Madras. He also constructed an auditorium, Vani Mahal which continues to function till date.

Listen to the famous Tyagaraja Kriti ‘Endaro Mahanubhavulu’, from Thyagayya.

To celebrate Tyagaraja, the Govt of India’s postage department released a special stamp in his honour, many decades ago. Tyagaraja continues to inspire scores of Carnatic music lovers across the world.

This year Pushya Bahula Panchami falls on the 17th of January according to the traditional calendar. This being the 250th birth year of Tyagaraja is a historic one. Scores of musicians, music lovers, devotees of Tyagaraja are making their way to Thiruvayaru even as you read this to commemorate this grand festive occasion.

The Tyagaraja Aradhana is the world’s largest gathering of musicians and music practitioners of one genre at any point of time. It doesn’t happen in Hindustani music or Dhrupad anywhere else in India. It doesn’t happen with Jazz, Pop or Western Classical music anywhere else in the world! In no other genre is a composer deified and worshipped as a saint like Tyagaraja is in Carnatic music. For as long as Carnatic music is sung, Tyagaraja and his Rama Bhakti will be immortalized. 

Courtesy for all images: Krishnamurthy, Savitha Kumar

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He can be reached at

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